BEROWRA CREEK, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was a terrible year for Australia, and in such dark times, humor helps us cope. The triple-whammy began with an apocalypse of smoke and fire. Megafires that created their own weather converged to become the most extensive conflagration ever recorded on any continent, destroying 20 percent of the nation’s forested land. They were finally extinguished in February—by deadly flooding. Then, as the floodwaters were still receding, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.
I’m not a great reader of the Old Testament, but after our three plagues, I consulted Exodus on the nature of the fourth disaster inflicted on the ancient Egyptians.… Seguir leyendo »
In the northern suburbs of this city is a small temple to a Chinese folk deity, Lord Guan, a famous warrior deified more than a millennium ago. Renovated five years ago at the government’s expense, the temple is used by a group of retirees who run pilgrimages to a holy mountain, schoolchildren who come to learn traditional culture and a Taoist priest who preaches to wealthy urbanites about the traditional values of ancient China.
Perched atop a hillock overlooking the sprawling capital, the temple is a microcosm of a new civil religion taking shape in China — an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to satisfy Chinese people’s search for moral guidelines by supplementing the largely irrelevant ideology of communism with a curated version of the past.… Seguir leyendo »
For nearly six months, people around the world have watched the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong with one question in the back of their minds: When will Beijing lose patience and the repression begin? Journalists expecting to cover Tiananmen II flew in for the most promising global story of the year, its allure bolstered by the protesters’ ability to speak English and the easily digestible narrative of David vs. Goliath, democracy vs. authoritarianism, right vs. might.
This perspective was reflected in coverage of this past weekend’s district council elections. Although these usually hinge on intensely local issues, they were pegged as a chance for voters to give a verdict on the protests.… Seguir leyendo »
Something strange is happening in Xi Jinping’s China. This is supposed to be the perfect dictatorship, the most sustained period of authoritarianism since the Cultural Revolution ended more than forty years ago, a period of such damning disappointment that all but the regime’s most acquiescent apologists have become cynics or critics. And yet the past few months have also seen something potentially more interesting: the most serious critique of the system in more than a decade, led by people inside China who are choosing to speak out now, during the most sensitive season of the most sensitive year in decades.
The movement started quietly enough, with several brilliant essays written by a Chinese academic that drew an attack from his university bosses, which in turn stirred a backlash among Chinese public intellectuals.… Seguir leyendo »
Thirty miles northeast of the Slovakian capital Bratislava is Veľká Mača, a village-turned-bedroom-community of tightly packed bungalows fanning out from a big Catholic church, a small supermarket, and a smoky pub. In winter, the surrounding fields are dusted with snow, some planted with wheat but many now filled with hangar-like logistic centers for Amazon, DHL, and other markers of economic change.
Nearly a year ago, hired killers drove into this quiet town, broke into a small prefabricated bungalow, and shot dead two young people: the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, an archaeologist at a local research institute.… Seguir leyendo »
Last month, I spent several days at the Forbidden City, the gargantuan palace in the middle of Beijing where China’s emperors ruled the land for nearly five hundred years. I was there to attend a conference on religion and power in imperial China, but my thoughts were drawn to more contemporary concerns: the plight of the Uighurs in China’s far western province of Xinjiang, including re-education camps aimed at breaking their faith in Islam.
I was struck by parallels between contemporary and imperial religious policy at the end of the conference, when our hosts took us to parts of the complex that are off-limits to tourists, such as the Hall of Imperial Peace.… Seguir leyendo »
The province of Sichuan is a microcosm of China. Its east is flat, prosperous, and densely settled by ethnic Chinese. Its mountainous west is populated by poorer minorities, but possesses resources that help make the east rich.
In Sichuan, the highlands’ bounty is water and silt, which rush down from the Tibetan Plateau to the plains below through an ingenious set of irrigation waterworks at the town of Dujiangyan. Soon after this system was built, some 2,300 years ago, the intensive agriculture that it made possible turned the region into one of China’s economic dynamos, producing so much wealth that it helped the first emperor of China consolidate numerous fragmented states into one powerful realm.… Seguir leyendo »
For nearly sixty years since it opened in 1959, the Great Hall of the People has been the public focus of Chinese politics, a monumental granite block that extends 1,200 feet along the west side of Tiananmen Square. It is where the country’s leaders appear in public to display their power: a platform for state banquets, receptions of foreign dignitaries, and symbolic political meetings. It is their throne room, their sacred space. It is the outward manifestation of decisions made in other, darker realms.
That setting made it hard to avoid the imperial parallels in Sunday’s vote to allow Xi Jinping to serve as China’s leader indefinitely.… Seguir leyendo »
In these pages nearly seven years ago, Timothy Snyder asked the provocative question: Who killed more, Hitler or Stalin? As useful as that exercise in moral rigor was, some think the question itself might have been slightly off. Instead, it should have included a third tyrant of the twentieth century, Chairman Mao. And not just that, but that Mao should have been the hands-down winner, with his ledger easily trumping the European dictators’.
While these questions can devolve into morbid pedantry, they raise moral questions that deserve a fresh look, especially as these months mark the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of Mao’s most infamous experiment in social engineering, the Great Leap Forward.… Seguir leyendo »
For gentlemen of purpose and men of benevolence, while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of benevolence, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have benevolence accomplished. —Confucius, Analects
In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents quickly struck back, deposing the emperor and causing his advisors to flee for their lives.
One, however, stayed put. He was Tan Sitong, a young scholar from a far-off corner of the empire.… Seguir leyendo »
Politics is always about pomp and pageantry, but as pure, stultifying ritual few occasions can compare to the convening of the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress, which ended this week. No matter what is happening in China or the world, it always follows the same eye-glazing program—a “work report” that summarizes already-known plans; questionable proposals that are discussed to make it seem that a deliberative body is convening; gatherings of delegations that are unelected and largely powerless; and finally a press conference that is as real as a fight in a kung-fu movie.
And yet this performance is never without meaning.… Seguir leyendo »
How bad is religious persecution in China?
This is a question I’ve thought a lot about over the past few years. Since 2010 I’ve been working on a project documenting a religious revival in China, and seen new churches, temples, and mosques open each year, attracting millions of new worshipers.
But I’ve also seen how religion is tightly proscribed.
Only five religious groups are allowed to exist in China: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. The government controls the appointment of major religious figures, and decides where places of worship can be built. It tries to influence theology and limits contacts overseas.… Seguir leyendo »
Tan Hecheng might seem an unlikely person to expose one of the most shocking crimes of the Chinese Communist Party. A congenial sixty-seven-year-old who spent most of his life in southern Hunan province away from the seats of power, Tan is no dissident. In fact, he has spent his career working for official state media and trying to believe in Communism.
But in a meticulously detailed five-hundred-page book released in English this week, he lays out in devastating detail one of the darkest, and least known, episodes in Communist Chinese history: the mass murder of nine thousand Chinese citizens by explicit order of regional Party officials during the height of the Cultural Revolution.… Seguir leyendo »
Over the summer I traveled to Wuhan to continue my series of talks with people about the challenges facing China. Coming here was part of an effort to break out of the black hole of Beijing politics and explore the view from China’s vast hinterland.
Wuhan seemed a logical place to start because it is one of the country’s great inland port cities—it has a population of more than 8 million and is a gateway to the interior. A conglomeration of what were once three cities, Wuhan is at the intersection of two of China’s most important rivers, the Yangtze and the Han.… Seguir leyendo »
Ai Xiaoming is one of China’s leading documentary filmmakers and political activists. Since 2004, she has made more than two dozen films, many of them long, gritty documentaries that detail citizen activism or uncover whitewashed historical events. Among them are Taishi Village, which recounts the efforts of farmers to remove a corrupt party secretary; The Epic of the Central Plains, which tells the story of an AIDS village in Henan province; a five-part series on the 2008 Beichuan Earthquake that focuses on the efforts of activist Tan Zuoren; and, most recently, a five-part documentary on Jiabiangou—a labor camp for political prisoners where thousands died of famine in the Great Leap Forward.… Seguir leyendo »
Every Olympics seems to bring with it a doping scandal, and the Rio games are no different. Well before Friday’s opening ceremonies, state-sponsored doping in Russia, widespread doping on the Chinese swim team, and questions about a Rio drug-testing lab have renewed worries about whether a “clean” Olympics will ever be possible.
It might be tempting to throw up one’s hands and see these revelations as nothing more than the latest in a series of sordid stories about athletes seeking an edge. After all, pro sports from cycling to baseball are rife with similar tales of performance-enhancing substances. But the recent Olympic doping scandals are symptomatic of something more significant: the return of semi-rogue countries determined to bypass international norms and conventions in a systematic way not seen since the cold war.… Seguir leyendo »
I am a member of a martial arts group that performs at annual temple fairs around Beijing. Half of our group are children, and almost without fail they meet at a park on the west side of town at around three in the afternoon to practice fighting with staffs with our teacher, a bear-like thirty-seven-year-old bus driver named Mr. Zhao. His personal motto: “Life is but a dream; keep smiling all the time.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Zhao wasn’t smiling. Around two, one of the children sent out a message on China’s most popular social media site, WeChat, asking if anyone was going to the park.… Seguir leyendo »